‘The improvidence of the poor’

In 1830 the Kirk Session of Dornoch considered themselves ‘well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor’. That April they met to discuss an unexpected windfall. Alexander Ross, a merchant in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had left a hundred pounds to be distributed among the poor of his native parish. Should they divide it into tiny amounts and hand it out as per his will, or should they keep it ‘till a time of scarcity of human food should occur’?

Before Scotland’s New Poor Law of 1845 it was not the nation state which was responsible for social care, but the church. This was a continuation of the ‘parish state’ instituted after the Reformation. This power and responsibility was vested in the hands of elders, a group of local men esteemed for their ability, piety or, sometimes, their status. They, along with the minister, met regularly as the Kirk Session to perform two functions, one moral and one economic. After the Reformation the church diligently attempted to make everyone conform to Protestant religious standards. Their pursuit of people committing sexual offences (usually fornication or adultery) is best known, but until the eighteenth century they also tried to enforce Sundays as a day of rest and church-going, and endeavoured to keep a lid on drunkenness, violence, gossip and other anti-social behaviours. Apart from some revitalisation of the power of the Kirk Session connected with nineteenth-century religious revivals, by 1830 the main business was financial: collecting and disbursing the Poor Roll.

Halifax9

Halifax: where Alexander Ross of Dornoch made his money. Still plenty of trading going on at this strategically important spot, just below the Citadel, where the Bedford Basin empties into the Atlantic. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie.

The Dornoch minutes from 1830 detail specific arrangements for handing out the money before the clerk gushed his ‘high respect for the memory of the benevolent Testator, who left such a substantial testimony of his attachment to his native Parish’. However the bequest ended up being a bit of a disappointment. After corresponding with Angus Ross, the Glasgow-based brother of the deceased Alexander, it became apparent they would only be sent the sterling equivalent of £100 in Halifax currency, amounting to £78.5.4. The Session ‘judged it to be their wisest plan to submit, as they could not afford to litigate the point’. The duplicity seemed to release them from any sense of obligation in following the precise conditions of the bequest. Instead they felt

they should best answer the Testator’s benevolent intentions by depositing the above sum in a Bank (the interest annually to be divided among the poor) till a time of scarcity of human food should occur, when they should have this money to draw upon to purchase meal for them: for the session, are so well acquainted with the improvidence of the Poor, that though the whole sum were distributed among them at once – which would not be more to each than 10/- or 12 shillings, they would be the next year as much in want as if they had not received a sixpence of it: – whereas, by reserving it, as the Kirk Session have done, for a time of great scarcity, it will prove the means of seasonable relief to them.

Maggie Dempster

Older folks like Maggie Dempster, a fisherwoman from Embo, were particularly at risk of falling into poverty when they could no longer work. This was especially the case for women who tended to be lower paid and were less able to save money. This picture was taken in 1870. Photo: Historylinks Image Library. Ref: 2009_059  No: 7724 

A perusal of some of today’s newspapers would quickly reveal contemporary examples of such ‘victim-blaming’ of society’s most disadvantaged. The elders assumed the difficulties of all 139 people on the poor roll were, fundamentally, an issue of inadequate character rather than the consequence of ill-health, poor wages, lack of secure employment, clearance policies, the abandonment of a spouse, or any other number of possibilities. Despite such lack of insight, the elders endeavoured to manage the resource to best effect. Their forward planning was justified seven years later when the clerk noted rather smugly

That time is now arrived when there is every appearance of a great scarcity of human food, in this Parish and though the Country generally. The Session therefore, intend to draw on this Legacy to purchase meal for the Poor to meet their wants in the ensuing summer. The example of the Kirk Session, in this case, may also serve for a precedent to those who may succeed them in the management of the Poor’s funds.

The incident hints at a lot: that the well-known Highland emigration of the nineteenth century included well-to-do merchants as well as cleared crofters; that Highland migrants, like most, maintained personal, economic and emotional links with their country of origin; that the 1837 famine affected the east Highlands as well as the west; and that the church, for all its lack of insight into structural reasons for poverty, tried to be wise in their responsibilities.

Sources:

Highland Council Archives, CH2/1588/1/2, Dornoch Kirk Session Minute book containing collections and distributions of Poor’s Money 1843-1849

John MacAskill, ‘It is truly, in the expressive language of Burke, a nation crying for bread’: the public response to the highland famine of 1836-1837’ Innes Review, (Autumn 2010), 61.2, p169-206.